It’s the time of year when presidents typically pardon innocent turkeys, not accused war criminals. This White House, however, is setting a new precedent for political interference in military justice — and for taking the moral low ground.
The firing of Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer on Sunday was yet more evidence that President Trump, who in 2016 campaigned on the idea that “torture works,” is willing to go to great lengths to grandstand before his base on the eve of an election year, even if it means undermining our troops’ standing in the world and the norms for military conduct.
Spencer was fired over the case of Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, a Navy SEAL who was accused of violent crimes by his own platoon members and ultimately convicted of posing with the corpse of a prisoner. Gallagher is one of three armed services members convicted or accused of war crimes who were cleared by Trump in mid-November, a move that Pentagon leaders rebuked. Taken together, the cases follow an alarming pattern: The president has been using his unlimited pardon power in pursuit of a political agenda. The costs of Trump’s interference are high. The actions weaken our military justice system, undermine the rule of law, and damage the American military’s standing in the world.
Trump’s favorite TV network, Fox News, had been championing Gallagher and the cases of two other service members who eventually got pardoned by Trump: former Army lieutenant Clint Lorance, who was serving a 19-year sentence for murder, and Major Mathew Golsteyn, an officer with the Army Special Forces who faced a murder trial next year.
In a tweet last month, the president hinted at the pardons. “We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!” he wrote.
The case of Major Mathew Golsteyn is now under review at the White House. Mathew is a highly decorated Green Beret who is being tried for killing a Taliban bombmaker. We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill! @PeteHegseth— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 12, 2019
But soldiers are not machines; they are human beings. They are trained to protect national security, and they don’t have free license to kill. Gallagher faced seven charges, including murdering a captive teenage ISIS fighter and shooting unarmed civilians in Iraq during a deployment in 2017. The prosecution’s evidence was largely based on his fellow platoon members’ testimony. Gallagher was acquitted of the murder charge after a SEAL medic who was a crucial witness changed his testimony and said he had been the one who killed the detained fighter. (The prosecution had given sweeping immunity to all witnesses, which called into question the medic’s last-minute confession.)
Gallagher’s sentence was a rank demotion that reduced his pay grade, which also would lower his retirement pay. Earlier this month, Trump reversed Gallagher’s demotion, allowing him to retire with a better pension, and pardoned Lorance and Golsteyn in full. Trump stood in opposition to senior military officers, who worry the move could deter military personnel from blowing the whistle on war crimes.
Presidential pardoning powers are clearly established in the Constitution. But what’s technically legal is now being undertaken with reckless disregard for due process and norms, in yet another example of the Trump administration’s trampling of institutions. That’s why Navy SEAL leaders wanted to hold Gallagher accountable, even after the president cleared him. They hoped to launch a disciplinary review to take away Gallagher’s SEAL trident, a gold-colored insignia issued to SEALs. But Trump intervened again to prevent the pin’s confiscation and Gallagher’s demotion.
“The rule of law is what sets us apart from our adversaries,” Spencer wrote in a letter to Trump after he was fired.
He’s right. If America neglects to hold those accused of war crimes accountable, it degrades our military and the dignity of those who serve with sound moral judgment and high standards of conduct. It also sends a message to the world that the United States will not uphold the very values it espouses.